Over one hundred vessels in the waters near Hawai'i fish with lines twenty or thirty miles long and carrying up to 2,000 baited hooks. Most of these "longliners" came to Hawai'i within the last decade, after stocks of swordfish in the Atlantic were depleted by overfishing. They may be fishing for swordfish or tuna, but they hook any fish or animals -- including turtles, sea birds, and marine mammals -- that go for the bait or happen to get in the way. Hundreds of sea turtles, including leatherbacks, loggerheads, and olive ridleys, are snagged by Hawai'i's longline fleet every year. Many of them drown soon after swallowing the hooks. Others die weeks or months later from starvation or internal injuries, or are strangled by the monofilament lines.
"Longlining is doing to the sea turtles what driftnetting did to the dolphins. If the Pacific longline fleets are not brought under control, leatherback sea turtles may soon go the way of the dinosaurs," said Peter Fugazzotto, Associate Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.
Tim Eichenberg, program counsel for plaintiff Center for Marine Conservation, commented: "Leatherback and other sea turtle species are on the brink of extinction. Although the Center for Marine Conservation has urged the government for years to reduce sea turtle mortalities in the longline fishery, no meaningful action has been taken. In fact, the government has allowed an increase in the number of hooks in the longline fishery, and has authorized an increase the number of sea turtles caught by the fishery. This lawsuit may be the last chance to save an ancient and unique species from extinction."
Sea turtle populations around the world have been dropping drastically as a result of hunting and fishing. For example, the number of leatherbacks nesting annually at main nesting sites in Costa Rica, Malaysia, and Mexico have dropped by over 90 percent, and this unique animal may soon be extinct. One year ago, NMFS issued its Leatherback Recovery Plan, which says that the killing of these turtles by commercial fisheries must be eliminated for the leatherbacks to recover. Yet NMFS, which has been aware of this problem for more than fifteen years, has failed, time and again, to require the fishery to take any measures to stop -- or even reduce -- the killing. Instead, it has routinely issued "Biological Opinions" and "Incidental Take Statements" under the Endangered Species Act, in which it continually increases the number of turtles it authorizes to be caught, while their populations continue to drop dramatically.
The suit alleges that the defendants have been violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to take action to conserve the turtles, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a proper Environmental Impact Statement. The suit seeks to compel preparation of a proper biological opinion, an EIS thoroughly analyzing the fishery's impacts on turtles and all other aspects of the environment and discussing alternatives, and appropriate injuctive relief until defendants are in full compliance with the laws.
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund managing attorney Paul Achitoff, who is representing the plaintiffs, observed: "Turtles have been living in the sea since the days of the dinosaurs. We will not stand by and watch them be driven into extinction -- and the law does not allow NMFS to just stand by and watch, either."
Sea turtle photo available as .tiff file.
Call Brian Smith at Earthjustice Communications, 415-627-6700.